WNBA star Brittney Griner spent about 12 hours of her 18-hour flight to the U.S. from Russia talking with others on the plane, according to Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, who helped secure the basketball star’s release and was on the flight.
“I have been in prison for 10 months now, listening to Russian. I want to talk,” Griner said, according to Carstens.
She then asked Carstens, referring to others on the plane: “But, first of all, who are these guys?”
“And she moved right past me and went to every member on that crew, looked them in the eyes, shook their hands and asked about them, got their names, making a personal connection with them,” Carstens said in an interview on CNN. “It was really amazing.”
The two-time Olympic gold medalist, Baylor national champion and Phoenix Mercury star spoke with those on the plane about her time in the Russian penal colony and her months in captivity, Carstens said, declining to go into specific details.
“I was left with the impression this is an intelligent, passionate, compassionate, humble, interesting person, a patriotic person,” Carstens said. “But above all, authentic. I hate the fact that I had to meet her in this manner, but I actually felt blessed having had a chance to get to know her.”
Griner, who played pro basketball in Russia during the WNBA offseason, was arrested at a Moscow airport in February after Russian authorities determined she was carrying vape canisters with cannabis oil. The U.S. State Department declared Griner “wrongfully detained,” a designation Russia rejected.
Last week, President Joe Biden announced that the U.S. had secured Griner’s release in a prisoner exchange for convicted notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Bout had been serving a 25-year sentence on charges that he conspired to sell tens of millions of dollars in weapons that U.S officials said were to be used against Americans.
Though Griner is undergoing an extensive medical and mental evaluation at the base, Carstens said she appeared “full of energy, looked fantastic.”
On Sunday, Griner picked up a basketball for the first time in nearly 10 months for a light workout, with her first act on the court being a dunk, her agent said.
Despite the light workout, the 32-year-old Griner is unsure when she will be ready or if she plans to return to her WNBA career with the Phoenix Mercury, according to Colas.
“If she wants to play, it will be for her to share. She has the holidays to rest and decide what’s next without any pressure,” Colas said. “She’s doing really, really well. She seems to have endured this in pretty incredible ways.”
Since her return, Griner has not spoken publicly but should issue a statement sometime “this week,” Colas added.